The Confession of a Portfolio User

A set of multicolored folders are fanned out over a white background

This post is the second in a series looking at the history of writing and writing instruction at the University of Wisconsin. Here, Nattaporn Luangpipat discusses the use of portfolios for assessment and how this fits into the history of UW.

By Nattaporn Luangpipat

Nattaporn Luangpipat is a Ph.D. student in the Composition and Rhetoric program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is interested in writing and healing, writing for peace, multimodal composition, and second language writing.

Evaluating portfolios is not easy. I remember when I told my students that I would not grade every paper that they write and instead would give them feedback. I believed I saw most of them frown and look at each other (and me) disbelievingly. I, myself, also had tons of questions when I evaluated their portfolios at the end of the semester. Although using portfolios in a classroom is not a new concept, some students, and even instructors, might experience it for the first time. In this post, I share with you the information I’ve found about the history of using portfolios, and my experience using portfolios in writing classrooms. 

What exactly is a portfolio?

In education, a portfolio is a “purposeful collection of student work that exhibits the student’s efforts, progress, and achievements,” (Paulson, Paulson, & Meyer, 1991; Beishuizen et al., 2006). Portfolios can come in hard copy or online. They may include short and long assignments, notebooks filled with documents, notes, blogs, online journals, or student-created websites (The Glossary of Education Reform, 2016). In my class, English 100, a portfolio typically includes a writer’s memo (a description of their audience and purpose, and a reflection of the choices and changes they make throughout that writing project) and various drafts of the assignments with comments from peers and the instructor.

Who introduced portfolios in English 100 at UW-Madison?

The concept of using portfolios has been in the composition course for freshmen at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) for more than 60 years. “An early version of the portfolio system” came from Ednah Shepard Thomas, according to Susan H. McLeod’s statement in the forward of “The Memoir of Ednah Shepard Thomas.” In 1955, Ednah Thomas, a past professor of English at UWisconsin-Madison who was one of the developers of the Freshman English Program from 1945 until its abolishment in 1970, created a pamphlet titled “Evaluating Student Themes.” This forty-page pamphlet consists of fourteen student themes, and each work is attached with an “ideal process” for commenting on students’ writing. Professor Thomas emphasized in her book that “a teacher must aim not to edit but to promote the lifelong development of students’ writing skills” (Thomas, 1955, pp. iv-v). Her pamphlet was proof of and a guideline for how to replace a single letter grade with multiple letters combined into a comment. This style of portfolio grading is still used in many ways today.

How do portfolios work in English 100?

With the focus of writing as a process, the portfolio becomes one of the distinct features of teaching and learning in English 100. In each sequence, the students work on short assignments prepares them with skills needed for a final project. For the final project, the students normally work on drafts and have a workshop before they turn in their final draft. In my class, students are free to choose to submit their final portfolio online via Canvas, a learning management system, or hand in a hard copy. Guidelines for portfolios are normally provided. At the end of the semester, students will submit their portfolios covering all the work they have done throughout the semester. The instructor will grade their portfolios based on the development of students as writers, the ability to meet course expectations, and the effort that they put to improve their writing. 

Why do we use portfolios?

Portfolios allow students to look back at their own development of their writing. It reflects upon what they have already accomplished and what improvements they can make. The students from my class said that “the portfolio allows me to grow throughout the process of writing each project, “It gives us more time and practice to make sure that the final product is the best it can be,” and “It’s nice to see things I improved and how I grow as a writer.” At the same time, a portfolio allows teachers to track progress and view individual growth. Besides, evaluating student work over time can provide a richer, deeper, and more accurate picture of what students have learned and are able to do than more traditional measures—such as standardized tests, quizzes, or final exams—that only measure what students know at a specific point in time (Armstrong, 2006).

What are the challenges of using portfolios?

Even with the advantages the portfolio has, it’s not easy for students who are used to grading curves to get used to an ‘ungraded paper’ and for the teacher to judge students’ growth and effort. The unfamiliarity with the format of portfolios might lead to confusion. 

A question I often hear from students is: “What should I include in the portfolio?” The answer for that would be to remind them what to include in the portfolio in every sequence, despite the guideline that you provide in the instruction. As each portfolio in each class is different and the concept of it hasn’t rooted in the students’ minds; it is essential to repeat yourself many times for what portfolio is and what they need to put in there. 

For me, the most challenging thing is how to give them the “balanced criticism and encouragement and to show both interest in and respect for students’ work as a whole” (Thomas, 1955, pp. iv-v). I try to have those balances by giving each student a comment on at least 1) one good thing about their work, 2) a question on either the content in the writing or the writing itself, and 3) a suggestion on what they could work on more. 

Although evaluating portfolios is not easy, it is rewarding. Because each piece of writing is unique and each writer has their own way of growing, portfolios help each writer establish an individual, lifelong process and become an autonomous learner and writer. 


Armstrong, C. L. (2006). “Understanding and improving the use of writing portfolios in one French immersion classroom” (Master Thesis) (Order No. MR18689). Retrieved from

Beishuizen, et al., (2006). “The introduction of portfolios in higher education: a comparative study in the UK and the Netherlands.” European Journal of Education, 41 (3/4), 491-508 Retrieved from 

“The Glossary of Education Reform.” (2016). Portfolio Retrieved from

Thomas, E. S., author. (2017). The Memoir of Ednah Shepard Thomas (Edited by David Stock). Colorado: Boulder, Colorado: The WAC Clearinghouse; University Press of Colorado. Retrieved from

Thomas, E. S. (1955). Evaluating Student Themes. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press.